In the opening pages of M. Fagyas’ 1966 novel, The Widowmaker, Peter Kozma staggers into his hamlet of Ladany in Hungary after seven years of being away at the Russian front with the Austro-Hungarian army and then a prisoner of the Russians. Instead of the warm homecoming he had imagined thousands of times over those years, his wife eyes him coldy.
“‘It’s me–I’ve come back!’ he finally managed to squeeze out the words.
“‘So I see,’ she said as unemotionally as if he had been away only five minutes.”
While her husband has been away, his wife Tereza has had to manage their small farm on her own, and after some struggle, succeeded in doing better than Peter had–adding a few acres to their parcel. Some free labor–and later some company in bed–from a Russian prisoner, Nicolai, helped–and helped change her perspective on her marriage.
Within a few days of his return, Peter is found dead. The suspicions of a local constable are raised, particularly after he finds their cat buried in the yard, the apparent victim of arsenic poisoning.
He fails to find enough evidence to arrest her, but over the course of the next months, other men in Ladany and surrounding towns start dying in suspicious circumstances–many betraying signs of arsenic poisoning. He suspects the local abortionist of supplying the arsenic and also of instigating the murders. But he also runs into a wall of silence among the women.
Although The Widowmaker is on one level a straightforward detective story, if in an unusual setting, it’s also a somewhat gruesome twist on Aristophanes’ feminist satire, Lysistrata–only in this case, the women take revenge on their men for the pain and disruption caused to their lives through war, physical abuse, alcoholism, and laziness by something a little more ruthless than just withholding sex.
As other readers have noted (see the comments in this post on The Devil’s Lieutenant), Fagyas had a knack for writing the kinds of books that you pick up and don’t put down until you’ve finished it hours later. In my case, I had the advantage of a transatlantic flight, but reading The Widowmaker was a four-hour blur to me. Her prose is nothing out of the ordinary, but she was clearly at home in a world in which bloodlines ran back centuries, where the importance of the ownership of even the barest scraps of land could drive people insane, and and when layers of customs were only just beginning to be stripped away by the twentieth century, and the novel gains most of its power from her mastery of her setting.